Why Jane Austen Is The Ideal Antidote To Today’s Troubles

jane austen

Recently the Guardian published an article about how Americans have embraced Jane Austen’s work and now want to live like they’re in one of her novels. There was also a film about this phenomenon called Austenland, proving that the whimsical draw on Austen’s work is not a new concept.

This got me thinking: why on earth would anyone want to live in Austen’s England? This was a land where women had no rights, there was no healthcare, pensions or child benefits and poverty was rife. Life expectancies were low because of the poor sanitation and child death was high for the same reason. Why would anyone want to go back to that time?

Then I started to think about it logically. Whilst Austen was a famed wit who included satirical references to inequality, poverty and social inequality in a number of her works, the majority of her books focused on the trivial. They were about how her version of love, a practical, yet all-encompassing emotion, was the single most important factor in anyone’s life.

She focused on certain characters and quickly and wittily overlooked those that did not suit her purposes. Her works give some insight into society at the time but, in general, their focus is on levity and social graces. For those who choose to overlook the barbs and wit, these are books almost exclusively about a middle-class society that doesn’t exist anymore and never will again.

They are about a group of people in the centre of society with a little mobility to go up and a lot to go down. This topic is fascinating to today’s youth, and makes the idea of a ‘class defying’ romance all the more alluring. It’s this escapism that’s what prompts people to want to read and embody these books.

After all, in today’s society, where we’ve got natural disasters, Trump being a bellend and whatever the fuck’s going on with Brexit and the UK’s general election, there’s a bloody lot to want to escape from. Austen’s work is so far removed from modern life that it is practically a fantasy, and for that reason I can understand why so many people are obsessed with it.

Alice Boatwright Interview: “I have loved mysteries ever since a librarian handed me a Happy Hollisters adventure”

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On Halloween weekend I catch up with mystery writer Alice Boatwright to learn more about her work and the extensive inspiration behind it.  

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards mystery novels?

I have always been drawn to clean prose with good, insight-provoking metaphors and wit, rather than jokes. Although I admire more complex and experimental styles (James Joyce, William H. Gass, and Mario Vargas Llosa come to mind), this is not “me.” I loved “the Russians” when I growing up, but I never aspired to be Dostoyevsky. Willa Cather would be nice. Other writers who influenced me early on were Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and I do think E.B. White’s Elements of Style is the only writing book that is essential. Master that, and you know everything. I am still working on it.

I have loved mysteries ever since a librarian handed me a Happy Hollisters adventure when I was about eight years old; and there is something irresistible about the idea of trying to write the kind of books you enjoy so much.

What is your background in writing and how did you get in to writing professionally? 

My father was a musician and college professor, who began writing his first textbook when I was very young. I loved to go to sleep listening to the sound of his typewriter (an old Underwood that I still have). When this book was published, and he put the publisher’s special boxed edition on our mantel, I announced that he was not going to the only one in the family to publish a book. I began writing stories right away and studied writing all through college. I also have an MFA from Columbia.

Writing professionally turned out to mean something different than what I first imagined: a tenure-track teaching job and the bestseller list, of course. I have held a variety of jobs based on my writing skill, and I am very grateful for the amazing career I’ve had, which has taken me around the world. I have always written fiction too, but it is only recently that I have made an income from that.

Tell me about your books. How did you come to write them and what was the inspiration behind them?

My first book, Collateral Damage, had its origins in the thesis I wrote in graduate school. It slowly evolved into three linked novellas about the impact of the Vietnam War on those who fought, those who resisted, and the family and friends caught between them. I grew up during this era, and the conflicts at home and abroad, the brave decisions, and tragedies of this war influenced me profoundly. I wanted to write this book “no matter what” – but it took a long time and finding a publisher was not easy. Eventually it came out, won an award, and has now been released in a new edition in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the war.

I turned to writing mysteries during the time I was seeking a publisher for Collateral Damage. Vietnam remains a difficult subject that many publishers would not touch, and I thought I ought to try writing a book on a subject people enjoyed reading about – murder! I also knew it would be fun for me to write. My husband and I are both long-time Anglophiles, as well as avid readers of English mysteries, so we used to make up plots as we explored the countryside. One of my ideas was to write about an American married to an English vicar, and I still have the notes I scribbled down about this. A few years later, we moved to a village in Oxfordshire – and I had the time and experience to develop that idea into the first Ellie Kent mystery, Under An English Heaven (Cozy Cat Press, 2014). The second book in the series, What Child Is This?, came out in 2017; and the third will be out in the coming year.

I am delighted to say that the Ellie Kent books have proven to be very popular. Ellie’s experiences as an incomer and her outsider perspective as an American – as well as the opportunities for a certain amount of nosiness as the vicar’s wife – give her reasons to get involved in solving crimes. The books also give me the chance to write about England, which I love, and explore questions such as the meaning of home, the value of faith, and the challenges of blended families. Under An English Heaven won the 2016 Mystery and Mayhem Grand Prize and the first two books have both been Amazon bestsellers, reaching #1 in the traditional detective mystery category.

I have also always written short stories – another form I love. This year I had the pleasure of collaborating with an artist friend on Sea, Sky, Islands, a chapbook of three stories set in the beautiful San Juan Islands, off the coast of Washington. She provided the cover painting and interior illustrations, so it is really a very pretty little book. I love today’s freedom to create any kind of book you want. It’s so different from the age of “no”, when agents and publishers had the final say about what you could offer to readers.

When choosing books to read, what style of writing do you enjoy yourself? Are there any particular writers you admire?

I like books that have strong believable characters and whose stories – regardless of genre – are grounded in the real challenges of life. I like to be inspired by the writer’s fresh and skilful use of language as the medium for creating a world and experiences that entertain, inspire, and move me. There are many writers I admire, so I will just name a few recent ones – Elizabeth Strout, Alice Munro, and Patrick Modiano. Amongst mystery writers, my go-to models are primarily from the Golden Age – Josephine Tey, Dorothy L. Sayers, Marjorie Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Agatha Christie – but I love Georges Simenon and P.D. James too.

As a successful woman writer, what do you think the literary industry can do to provide more support for women looking to succeed?

Support for women writers begins with support for the idea that women and their ideas and experiences are as important and as autonomous as those of men. This requires a global effort to reverse centuries of tradition, law, and practice. Progress is variable, depending on where you are in the world. Of 774 million illiterate adults worldwide, 2/3 are women. So, the bottom line is education needs to be available to every girl and woman: these are potential writers and readers.

The next level of success is achieved if you actually write. The obstacles here are mainly in your own head. If you have a pencil and paper, you can write whatever you want. Making the time, having the interest and confidence to keep at it and develop your skills, believing in yourself: these are all challenges faced by every writer.

For training, if you have access to a library, you can educate yourself in every way from reading a wide variety of books to researching the business of writing and publishing. There are also many other options for learning from self-run writing groups and small workshops to degree programs. Today in the US, some 50% of graduate arts degrees are awarded to women. When I went to graduate school, there were 2 women and 13 men in my workshop.

I’m not sure the “industry” sees itself as responsible for cultivating women’s voices, but women demanding to read books by women certainly make a difference. From what I have read, men still predominantly prefer books by men (or are predominantly interested in the topics men tend to write about).

Sisters in Crime is an organization that was founded more than 30 years ago to address the disparity between men and women in getting published and reviewed, as well as bias in other areas, such as award programs and size of advances. Its programs supporting the professional development of women crime writers are well-respected, and it has been successful in raising these issues and documenting progress.

One indicator of success for women mystery writers is that the percentage of women on the NY Times bestseller list has risen from 15% in 1950 to 44% in 2010. But there are undoubtedly many challenges facing women writers as in other fields. The possibility of self-publishing has created new opportunities, but making a living from writing fiction is probably as hard as making a living from acting or painting or playing the violin.

If you could collaborate with any person, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

To be honest, I can’t imagine collaborating with anyone. The joy of writing fiction comes from being free to do whatever I want. It’s my show. I would be interested in being a fly-on-the-wall to watch Georges Simenon produce a beautifully written mystery in a weekend. Of course, he had a wife. That makes a difference.

Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?  

My primary focus is on finishing the third Ellie Kent mystery, which will come out in 2020. I also fiddle around with my stories and make notes when other book ideas come along.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward coming up?

My Puget Sound chapter of Sisters in Crime is very prolific, so I have a stack of books I am looking forward to reading by authors such as Marty Wingate, Candace Robb, Ingrid Thoft, Curt Colbert, Waverly Fitzgerald, and Jeffrey D. Briggs. It’s very special to follow the progress of writers you know, because you know both the book and all that went into making it happen.

Do You Have Any Final Words Of Advice?

If you want to be a writer, keep writing, no matter what, and never give up on a story you want to tell until you get it right and get it out!

Huge thanks to Alice for answering my questions, it’s been a pleasure to hear your thoughts. You can learn more about Alice’s work HERE.

Why Cookbooks Make The Perfect Gift

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Last month I moved to a new job, and as a leaving gift from my old workplace one of my fabulous formed colleagues gave me a cookbook. I suspect this was prompted, more than a little, by my poor showing in the office’s Bake Off competition, but as I flicked through it the other day I realised how great cookbooks are as gifts.

This got me thinking about Christmas, and the gifts I’ve got to purchase for friends. Some are hard to buy for, like my friend who’s a vegan and loves reading. She has loads of novels and non-fiction texts, so a cookbook is actually a good shout, and as the trend for veganism grows there are so many vegan cookbooks out there now. As such, I’ll have loads of choice when I go to buy her one.

It’s not just friends with dietary requirements that will love a cookbook this Christmas: they’re a great all-round present too. After all, everyone eats, and most people love food. Even those who say they don’t, and live off frozen ready meals and takeout still enjoy a good meal, even if they can’t cook one to save their life.

There’s also something about reading, or watching, someone else make food that’s so incredibly enticing. That’s why there are so many reality TV shows focused around cooking. There are also a lot of shows out there that aim to teach people how to cook, but somehow a book is a much more satisfying gift. You really feel like you’re the one doing it if you use a book, and the feeling of not having to rely on technology is also really lovely in this day and age.

So this Christmas if you’re looking for the perfect gift for someone special, or a general present for someone you don’t know that well, then choose a cookbook. You can’t go wrong with a good cookbook, and they come at varying price points; from full whack at Waterstone’s to older books you can buy comparatively cheap at the Works. There’s something for everyone and you can make someone really happy with a well-thought-out cookbook gift.

The Regret Review: A Heart-Stopping Thriller You Won’t Be Able To Put Down

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Dan Malakin’s The Regret is a fast-paced psychological thriller about how far people will go when their lives are threatened.

The novel centres around Rachel, a young nurse and mother to a three year old girl, Lily. Her seemingly perfect life is interrupted by the possible return of her past stalker, who may or may not be the person responsible for attempting to destroy Rachel’s life now.

Having been sent to prison for being a paedophile, Rachel’s former stalker is seemingly out for revenge, as Rachel framed him when she couldn’t make the stalking allegations stick. However, as the book moves on it becomes clear that the plot is much more complicated than that and that the protagonist is facing something far more frightening than a man scorned.

Malakin throws in a lot of red herrings, including a sketchy boyfriend, his dead-beat best friend and a technological wiz kid with questionable morals in the form of Lily’s dad and Rachel’s friend. Throughout the novel Rachel and, by extension, the reader, are left constantly wondering who is behind the destruction until the book reaches its apocalyptic climax.

Switching between a third person review of Rachel’s life and a deliciously creepy first person insight into the thoughts of the person trying to wreck her life, the novel is deeply disconcerting from the beginning and designed to unnerve and frighten.

The author has clearly done his research, giving an in-depth account of how the cyber-crime is being committed. From hacking Rachel’s bank account and re-routing her money through to scamming the NHS into giving access to patient records to be altered, the first-person chapters of the novel are the most harrowing of all, and the novel is well worth reading just for them.

The only issue I have the The Regret is that I feel that Malakin may have underestimated victims of such vile abuse. Often they become cautious after such experiences, and would not be as trusting as his protagonist. After all, she agreed to have a baby with a man she barely knew, and then allowed her boyfriend of a short time to have a key to her home.

If you can overlook this major character flaw then this is a thrilling and, frankly, terrifying novel about how remarkably easy it can be to ruin someone’s life. The twist at the end is so horrifying that it leaves you literally wondering how you never saw it coming. Malakin is a master of suspense and really leads his reader on in this tightly wound novel.

In all, The Regret is an enticing and deeply-disturbing book that I would recommend for those looking to get some real thrills this Halloween and frighten yourself with a tale of how far someone would go to destroy someone else’s life.

Booker Prize Winners Prove Award Needs Categories

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Following on from my previous post about the Nobel Prize for literature choosing two controversial winners, I’m pleased to say that the Booker Prize has this year chosen two winners based solely on merit and literary prowess.

In doing so, the prize has been awarded to the first black woman in its history, Bernardine Evaristo, as well as the oldest winner in the prize’s history, Margret Atwood. Atwood won for the sequel to the revered The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, which was released in September, more than 33 years after the original was published in 1985. Evaristo won for her novel Girl, Woman, Other, a tale of a group of very different characters, predominantly black British women.

As well as being the oldest and first black woman to win, Atwood and Evaristo are also the first joint winners of the prize, which proves that it should definitely change in order to adapt to today’s growing literary market.

After all, this illustrious prize began in 1969, and since then it has hardly evolved. Whilst the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ might be said to apply to such a revered accolade, it could also be said that the Booker Prize needs to move with the times in order to remain relevant.

Whilst back then there were still as many books being written and published, there were many who would not have been able to get their work long or shortlisted due to racial prejudice, sexism, homophobia and other factors. Times have changed, and today’s progressive literary market, which is working hard to become truly inclusive, now has many books in it that need to be considered.

As such, it is my opinion that the Booker Prize ought to embrace the widening of its remit and the constantly growing literary market by creating a series of categories so that it can properly showcase the rich variety that today’s literary space has to offer.

Nobel Prize For Literature: Courting Controversy Makes Prize Meaningless

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Having been suspended for a year after a controversy involving a convicted rapist who leaked the names of nominees, the Nobel Prize for Literature returned this year and awarded the 2018 and 2019 prizes in the same year.

Last year’s accolade went to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, while the 2019 prize was awarded to Austrian author Peter Handke. It was originally predicted that the Swedish academy that awards the prize would avoid selecting controversial opinions 

Both nominees have had controversial views over their long careers writing books across multiple genres. Tokarczuk has caused consternation among Polish patriots for her views around Poland’s culpability in colonialism, whilst Handke has previously showed his support for the Serbs during the 1990s Yugoslav war. He also spoke  at the 2006 funeral of former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was accused of genocide and other war crimes. 

Previously Handke had called for the abolishment of the prize that he has now accepted, as he believed at the time that the Nobel Prize for Literature was just an attention-seeking exercise and that the awards weren’t worth anything.

However, his mind might have been changed by the huge amount of prize money awarded, which is nine million Swedish kronor, or around £740,000. Both winners will also receive a medal and diploma, and doubtless the awards will do no harm to their future book sales. 

As such, it’s no wonder that Handke has reversed his views on the awards, but I personally can’t help but feel like by selecting two incredibly controversial figures, albeit for completely different reasons, the academy that awards the prize has proved itself to be completely ignoring the author’s contribution to the literary community, and instead focusing on courting headlines and media attention.

Obviously, both winners of these awards have made incredible contributions to the world of literature, but the fact that they are both being recognised in the media more their political views and controversial comments shows that the academy’s decision has paid off, and that the winner’s opinions are more important than their work.

By selecting two controversial winners, the academy has made itself headline news again and ignited debates among many, particularly in the case of Handke, whose views constitute, as many argue, a rewriting of history itself. However, the author’s works themselves have been mostly overlooked by those celebrating or critiquing the choice.

In the end, it is my belief that if awards like this aren’t throughly researched and properly awarded for services to the literary market, then they’re almost entirely pointless.

The Top Five Monsieur Pamplemousse Novels For Those Looking For Cutesy Crime Fiction


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Michael Bond is renowned as the creator of Paddington Bear, everyone’s favourite Peruvian marmalade-sandwich loving bear, but he also created the enchanting Monsieur Pamplemousse and his faithful bloodhound, Pomme Frites.

Described in the novels as ‘friend and mentor’, the dog is renowned for helping his master out of scrapes as well as getting him into them in the first place. Pretty much all the books in this series are suitable for readers of all ages, but the nuances of language and subtle jokes are the preserve of adult readers in search of cosy, relaxed crime fiction.

A food inspector for Le Guide, Monsieur Pamplemousse has a tremendous appreciation for food, as well as some skill in detection. As a result, he is often called upon to investigate strange happenings that occur, often in or around restaurants and food suppliers.

For those who only know Paddington, here’s a roundup of five of my favourite Monsieur Pamplemousse novels.

5. Monsieur Pamplemousse on Probation: Caught up in a scandal, Monsieur Pamplemousse is sent to report on a respected chef working in a hotel and who is up for one Le Guide’s top honours. However, the intrepid detective soon encounters a number of unusual occurrences and guests at the hotel, leading him to uncover secrets that threaten the legacy of France’s most respected gastronomic publication.

4. Monsieur Pamplemousse Takes the Cure: Sent undercover to a health farm with Pomme Frites as the world’s least convincing guide dog, Bond’s gourmet detective is out of his depth with theft, lust and unexplained deaths to deal with.

3. Monsieur Pamplemousse Rests His Case: Having been invited to a masquerade ball in honour of author Alexander Dumas, Monsieur Pamplemousse ends up caught up in a mystery when one of his fellow guests is killed.

2. Monsieur Pamplemousse and the Carbon Footprint: With sales of Le Guide struggling in America, Monsieur Pamplemousse is given the herculean task of impressing an American food critic by writing a play. His theatrical debut goes off without a hitch until the critic mysteriously runs away, seemingly in a funk. Bond’s tenacious protagonist and his faithful hound are quick to give chase, and pretty soon they are waist deep in mystery and intrigue.

1. Monsieur Pamplemousse: As always, it’s my recommendation that the first book in a series is the best place to start. A humorous, light-hearted novel, this first book introduces us to the titular character and his ever-present dog, and explores how he came to leave the Paris Surete, all whilst he investigates a peculiar incident at a respected eatery.